One could easily say that Architecture is the most recognizable form of art in Islam.
Now, any piece of architecture is a work of both beauty and practicality, but Islamic architecture includes a third dimension: spirituality. This goes back to the idea that for Muslims there is no separation between secular and spiritual; both are one.
Islamic architecture is a combination of all the elements I’ve spoken of earlier, and many more. All of these elements are used in conjunction to draw the viewer’s attention to God and God’s oneness. Verses throughout the Quran speak of this oneness and emphasise its importance. Islamic art and architecture celebrate this using Quranic script throughout architecture.
In all mosques, one may notice that there is always a focal point – a direction in which all things lead to. This is most noticeable in the lines or patterns that run across the floor. These lines face the direction of the Ka’ba, which I will get to shortly. So no matter where you go in the world, no matter what mosque you visit, these lines will always face the Ka’ba.
Think of it as spokes on a wheel, all joining up at the axle.
[Now I'll touch on a few famous pieces of Islamic Architecture.]
The Ka’ba is the most single most recognizable piece of Islamic architecture. Its history is so rich that it would take an entire presentation to cover. Many people are surprised to learn is that it’s not just a big back box sitting in the middle of the desert. It’s actually the very first house of worship, built by Abraham, peace be upon him. It even has an interior.
The Ka’ba acts as a focal point for Muslims; whenever they pray, they are praying towards it. This also enhances the theme of unity. [Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to perform the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes.]
Now, I’m pretty sure you all recognize this next one.
The Taj Mahal is Located in Agra, India, and is recognized as the “jewel of Muslim art in India”. It is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, which is a combination of Persian, Turkish, and Indian styles, all brought together as one.
At the entrance, you can see the beautiful Qur’anic calligraphy framing the main arch, and the floral arabesque designs.
There is some debate over where the name came from. Some believe it to have been originated from Persian language: “Taj” meaning “Crown” and “Mahal” meaning “Place or area”. Put together, it more or less means “Crown Place” or “Place of the Crown.” The other more popular belief is that it was named after the wife of Shah Jahn, the 15th century emperor. His wife was named Mumtaz Mahal, and he was so in love with her that it’s said his hair and beard went white from grief after her death. Mumtaz actually made Shah Jahn promise that he would build it. Construction began around 1632 and it took nearly 20 years to complete.
It was built as a mausoleum for Shah Jahn’s wife, and for himself upon his death. The two are buried side-by-side, and the building is seen as a symbol of eternal love between man and wife.
Not all architectural pieces are built for extravagance.
Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock is located in Jerusalem and is one of the most holiest sites in Islam. The dome is not a mosque, but a shrine that houses the stone that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) stood on when he ascended to heaven with Gabrielle to receive God’s divine commandment of the five daily prayers.
As with most Islamic architecture, Quranic verses decorate the inner and outer arcade of the structure, and arabesque patterns decorate the archways.
This is the rock itself, from both the ground level and from above. The rock has remained in the same place since Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, stood on it.
To the left is a cutaway of the building, [where] we see the interior decoration of the dome. [Inscriptions along the interior of the building mostly relate to Jesus, peace be upon him, and his affirmation that he was merely a prophet of God.]
And like most great works of architecture, someone has built it out of Lego.
Now I think it’s about time we actually saw a mosque.
Great Mosque of Damascus
The Great Mosque of Damascus is also known as the Umayyad Mosque.
What makes it special is that it is one of the few early mosques in the world to maintain the same structure and architecture since it was constructed 1200 years ago.Because of t.his, it has served as a model for classical mosque architecture worldwide.
The mosaic at the front entrance depicts a landscape alongside traditional arabesque designs, most likely representing Damascus at the time.
The Great Mosque also contains religious significance as well.
For starters it contains the shrine of John the Baptist, known as Yahya in Arabic, or “He lives”. It’s rumoured that his head is buried there.
The Great Mosque also contains the largest minaret in the world. A minaret is a tower where someone would announce the call-to-prayer, or adthan, during the five daily prayers. This one is known as the Minaret of Jesus. It is named so because it is believed to be the place where Jesus will descend to confront the Antichrist.
A building in the courtyard also contains the Tomb of Saladin, the Muslim Sultan during the crusades [featured in] Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.
As you’ve noticed, a common feature in Islamic architecture is the dome. The dome has both a spiritual and practical purpose. From the outside, the curvature of the dome instinctively draws the eyes upward to its peak. Essentially, drawing one’s eyes up to God.
From the inside, the dome shape enhances the Imam’s voice fro when he is speaking. According to principles of physics, the semi sphere can focus sound waves, and make them louder. In essence, it’s just like a giant speaker. This was especially important for the days before microphones.
As we’ve seen, Islamic art and architecture work as a framework for the implementation of Islam. Hence, one cannot understand the purpose of Islamic art and architecture without understanding Islam itself.
The artistic endeavours of Muslims promote the Islamic concepts of unity: the unity of spiritual message and purpose, yet the individuality of identity and style, methods and solutions.
All of this is drawn back to the concept of tawhid, of God’s oneness, uniqueness, and unity.
The original presentation, entitled “One”, can be found here.